The Cubs have been without Willson Contreras for three-plus weeks after he suffered a right hamstring strain, but the star catcher is closing in on a return. Contreras will begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Iowa on Friday, and if all goes well in the minors, he could rejoin the Cubs within a week, manager Joe Maddon told Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune and other reporters.
Contreras went down during the Cubs’ game Aug. 3, which was especially unfortunate just a few days after the July 31 trade deadline passed. With Contreras and Victor Caratini healthy at the deadline, the Cubs decided veteran Martin Maldonado was inessential, as they sent him to the Astros for utilityman Tony Kemp. Of course, the Cubs only acquired Maldonado from the Royals in mid-July because Contreras landed on the IL with a different injury – a right foot strain.
Even with the deadline out of the way and Maldonado out of the picture, Chicago was able to pull in an experienced catcher earlier this month. The team signed former standout Jonathan Lucroy on Aug. 7, which came shortly after the Angels released him. Lucroy’s multiyear decline has continued as a Cub, though he has at least given the team OK offensive production for a backup. The 33-year-old entered Thursday with a .276/.344/.345 line in 29 plate appearances since he joined the Cubs.
Unlike Lucroy, Caratini has been quite valuable this season, which has made the blow of losing Contreras easier to absorb. Caratini swatted a pair of home runs in the Cubs’ win over the Mets on Thursday, giving him nine HRs and a robust .274/.363/.480 line across 201 trips to the plate. Not only that, but Caratini has graded as one of Baseball Prospectus’ top defensive catchers this year.
When the Cubs’ top two catchers are healthy, few teams are in better shape behind the plate. Injuries aside, Contreras has enjoyed a fourth straight highly productive campaign – at least with the bat – as he has posted a .275/.365/.525 slash and 19 homers in 340 PA. The big-armed Contreras’ overall defensive numbers pale in comparison to Caratini’s, but the former is nonetheless among Chicago’s most valuable players and a key reason why it’s in playoff position at the moment.
The Cubs, who are 2 1/2 games up on a wild-card spot, will be thrilled to welcome back Contreras as they continue attempting to chase down the Cardinals for an NL Central crown. While the Redbirds are a game and a half ahead, the two teams still have to square off seven times in late September, when Contreras should again be a prominent part of the Cubs’ lineup.